Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Barney Miller (1975-1982, ABC), which is currently available in full on DVD.
Barney Miller stars HAL LINDEN as Barney Miller, ABE VIGODA as Fish, MAX GAIL as Wojo, RON GLASS as Harris, JACK SOO as Yemana, and GREGORY SIERRA as Chano. With BARBARA BARRIE, LINDA LAVIN, and JAMES GREGORY.
If Barney Miller’s selling point is its realism, particularly via its leads, then Season Two is not a great advertisement, for while showrunner Danny Arnold wisely drops Barney’s home and wife (she only appears twice), and focuses on the precinct where there are richer opportunities with the regulars and the premise, he also makes a surprising attempt to rev up the show’s never-comparably-excellent comedic engine, and this doesn’t acquit the year well, especially because it isn’t aligned with the series’ slower, quieter understanding of character. In other words, Two is a huge structural advancement, which makes it easier to find stories that satisfy the concept and make time for the leads, who yes, find definition gradually from mere exposure and thus naturally improve, but the year is so prematurely aggressive that it undermines what we already see as the series’ strength. It’s all most obvious in Two’s first trimester, when Chris Hayward’s old pal Arne Sultan is a credited producer and there’s an evident crusade to make the show funnier — not only through a reduction of drama (both didactic and personal), but also in an over-reliance on the few hooks and gags that have been carrying the comic burden, like weekly guests/plot, Yemana’s coffee, and Fish’s to-camera mugging. This lack of emotional weight and more forceful drive for laughs makes narrative-based angst unusually strained (for Barney Miller), and with so few of the leads ready to participate, its rare sources of humor (like Fish) are magnified in a way that stretches their credibility, relative to everything else. Also, the year is still trying to shoot in front of an audience, and there’s a theatricality — see, for instance, Linda Lavin’s portrayal of Wentworth — that’s against the show’s softer baseline and stands out as false, even in comparison to One, which was at least grounded by heavier moments… And yet, while this does a number on Two’s overall standing, the last, oh, half of the season begins a formative self-correction, with the humor modulating alongside the characters, all of whom become more defined through added use, as scripts offer more of both believable heft and the series’ trademark continuity (practiced here within, among other things, the casual Wentworth/Wojo romance). This all helps set the table for Three, the show’s peak largely because of Two’s strides with character and accumulating realism. That’s for next week though; first…
01) Episode 20: “Grand Hotel” (Aired: 10/23/75)
Wojo and Wentworth go undercover at a hotel as a married couple.
Teleplay by Danny Arnold, Chris Hayward, & Arne Sultan | Directed by Noam Pitlik
I struggled with whether or not to include this installment, for it’s got one of the series’ rare centerpieces set outside the precinct, and an ostentatious story featuring the theatrical Linda Lavin, whose Wentworth is not a credit to the show’s realism, even though her relationship with Wojo, which begins here and exists in the periphery of several of this year’s outings, furthers Barney Miller’s continuity and helps personalize his character, making him seem more dimensional. Indeed, because of what this means for Wojo, this entry was too memorable to ignore, and with enough plusses to overshadow the minuses — thanks, also, to assistance from the subplot with Robert Mandan and some slightly didactic drama — this is a valid sample of the season. Adam Arkin, Queenie Smith, and Beatrice Colen also guest.
02) Episode 21: “Discovery” (Aired: 10/30/75)
Marty believes a cop is harassing him, while the computer system declares Fish dead.
Written by Danny Arnold, Chris Hayward, & Tom Reeder | Directed by Lee Bernhardi
Although the idea-driven impersonalized subplot with Fish is one-joke and unoriginal, it’s a decent example of the first trimester’s grander comic concerns, and it’s basically believable. But if that reads like faint praise, the other parts of this episode — especially the return of Jack DeLeon as Marty, one of the series’ first and boldest recurring visitors, who’s back now with Ray Stewart as his beau — not only deliver laughs, but also more personally revealing and definition-making material as well, particularly for Wojo, whose uncomfortableness is comedic, dramatic, didactic, and illuminating. Philip Sterling and John LaMotta also appear.
03) Episode 22: “You Dirty Rat” (Aired: 11/13/75)
A few kilos of confiscated marijuana go missing.
Teleplay by Danny Arnold, Chris Hayward, & Arne Sultan | Story by Arne Sultan | Directed by Noam Pitlik
With an interoffice ensemble story about marijuana, this outing might seem like a precursor to “Hash,” but it’s very different, as Val Bisoglio (he was in the original unsold pilot) plays a narcotics agent who’s willing to overlook the fact that a few kilos of confiscated ganja are missing. The truth of who took them is a little comedically cute, but this is a funny entry with a main story that creates believable conflict, and without having to stretch the leads. Also, there are fun guest appearances from Ned Glass and the ever-reliable J. Pat O’Malley.
04) Episode 23: “Horse Thief” (Aired: 11/20/75)
The Bicentennial celebration brings several unusual cases to the precinct.
Written by Tony Sheehan | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This is essentially a standard Barney Miller, with several funny cases dominated by amusing guests who elevate them (Jack Dodson, Liam Dunn, Bruce Solomon, Judith Cassmore — and Ron Masak appearing as a cop), but with a memorable Bicentennial setting that locks the offering into its time and place, adding an impersonal but needed specificity. More to the point, it’s an honest, favorable display of Two and its aesthetic qualities — making its inclusion a no-brainer.
05) Episode 24: “Rain” (Aired: 11/27/75)
A rainstorm brings the precinct a weak roof and a bad nightclub comedian.
Teleplay by Tony Sheehan | Story by Danny Arnold & Chris Hayward | Directed by Noam Pitlik
With a job-related story that’s not about the revolving door of cases (although there is an amusing one featuring a lame standup comedian — ironic given the first half of the year’s swollen comic push), this installment is a great showcase for the ensemble, with both a pensive quality and a mounting tension that finally results in a damaged roof and Barney’s combustion, an emotional catharsis that happens so rarely that it feels earned and makes him come across like a real person. In fact, even with the intentionally yukyuk guest, this is among the year’s simplest and most believable. An MVE contender. Sidney Miller, Phil Leeds, Joseph V. Perry, and Stanley Brock (prior to his recurring role as Bruno Bender) appear.
06) Episode 29: “Sniper” (Aired: 01/22/76)
A conman sells trips to Saturn, while the officers are targeted by a sniper.
Written by Danny Arnold, Chris Hayward, & Tom Reeder | Directed by Lee Bernhardi
Despite not being one of this year’s top-shelf offerings, this solid excursion is a forward-looking example of the following season, with a gaudier case — a con man who’s selling trips to Saturn to kooks (namely, guest Charlotte Rae) — that foreshadows the kind of procedural silliness that “Werewolf” will specifically turn into a template. Also, James Gregory’s Luger is on hand to increase the laughs (and I wanted to include at least one segment with him here on these lists).
07) Episode 30: “Fear Of Flying” (Aired: 01/29/76)
Even though he’s scared of flying, Wojo must escort a bigamist on a plane.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Lee Bernhardi
The Bob Newhart Show’s Jack Riley guest stars in this outing as a bigamist whom Wojo has to escort on a plane, despite the latter having a fear of flying. This is a perfect blend of the professional and the personal, with a revealing yet believable detail about Wojo that, like many of the episodes in the back half of Two, gives him valuable comic definition. Additionally, this entry is worth highlighting because it’s the first script credited to Reinhold Weege, the future Night Court creator whose stylistic presence on Barney Miller we’ll discuss more in the weeks ahead — you can already see that his interests are bolder; here, it’s mostly comedic, evidenced in a centerpiece for Valerie Curtin (as one of Riley’s wives) that asks a little more of her than she can capably deliver. Regardless though, this is an important half hour.
08) Episode 31: “Block Party” (Aired: 02/12/76)
Wentworth goes on assignment with Chano, while Lt. Scanlon visits.
Written by Tom Reeder | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This formative offering is not just the year’s best use of Wentworth — weaving in her relationship with Wojo so it’s narratively utilizable but not false or overbearing, while also putting her in a situation that allows for the mildly didactic drama she was created to help foster — it’s also a stepping stone in the development of Harris’ character, picking up the idea that he’s an aspiring author and using it to flesh out his personality. And, if that wasn’t enough, we get the introduction of Lt. Scanlon (George Murdock), a great antagonistic force who can foster comic story independent of the weekly cases. Stanley Brock appears again.
09) Episode 34: “The Kid” (Aired: 03/04/76)
Fish is attracted to a young mugger’s mother, while a man returns to collect unclaimed money.
Written by Danny Arnold, Chris Hayward, & Tony Sheehan | Directed by Stan Lathan
Fish’s flirtation with a kid’s mom is an amusing narrative that nevertheless brings a little depth to this character that the series has otherwise been using only for easy laughs, and I think this outing tends to be popular because of how it displays him — its most traditionally defined player. However, I also feature it here for the continuity suggested by the return of a man who found a bunch of money in “Fear Of Flying” and is hoping to collect it — indicating Barney Miller’s hyper-attention (for its era) to detail, which goes a long way in indicating realism and progressing the series on this much-heralded aspect of its identity.
10) Episode 35: “The Mole” (Aired: 03/18/76)
Harris and Wojo chase a burglar through the sewers while Fish considers an operation.
Written by Danny Arnold, Chris Hayward, & Reinhold Weege | Directed by Mark Warren
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode, “The Mole” is Two’s finale and the perfect encapsulation of just how much the series has evolved, working through the growing pains of a comedically distended era by using the back half of this season to give more emotional weight and actual comic definition to the characters, so they’re better able to exist alongside comedic and dramatic story, even if it’s procedural and they’re in the periphery. (I’m most impressed with the strides made with Harris and Wojo, both of whom are much more solidified here than they were at Two’s start.) As for this installment specifically, the Fish storyline is sort of a jokey button to all his health-related bits, and the main plot about the cops chasing through the sewer is a gaudy Weege-ian notion that also provides for easy jokes, but forward movement in the series’ projection of character and realism (aided by continuity) helps couch any concerns and ensure that all its strengths are on display going into the third season, in time for the show to also be episodically competitive with others in the genre. Speaking of the third season, Ron Carey also guest stars, prior to his role as Officer Levitt, as the eponymous Mole… giving us a taste of what’s to come when Barney Miller is able to raise its comic fortunes legitimately, with fresh stories that still affirm the premise and have support from a stronger ensemble that’s also better at displaying the series’ guiding asset: realistic, believable characters.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Layoff,” one of the better shows from the Sultan trimester, with enjoyable procedural stories and good guests, and “The Psychiatrist,” which has a more didactic, dramatic story and comes close to evoking “The Hero,” but with moments of tonal ill-modulation that make it feel less real. In this section, I’ll also cite solid entries like “The Arsonist” and “Massage Parlor,” along with “Hot Dogs,” which is the year’s best use of the very funny Officer Luger. (Incidentally and for the record, I think the flashy “Doomsday” is a memorable but ultimately foreboding display of the year’s thinner realism, the controversial “Heat Wave” doesn’t adhere to contemporary sensitivities but has some interesting laughs alongside grating topicality, and “Fish” is noteworthy as the introduction for Steve Landesberg’s Dietrich, but as an attempted backdoor pilot for Fish — who would spin-off a year later — it’s not a fair sample of Barney Miller.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Barney Miller goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!